A traditional bouillabaisse from Marseille, with the fish served separately from and after the soup
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(Scorpionfish, sea robin, European conger)
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Bouillabaisse (French pronunciation: [bu.ja.bɛːs]; Occitan: bolhabaissa [ˌbuʎaˈβajsɔ / ˌbujaˈbajsɔ]) is a traditional Provençal fish stew originating from the port city of Marseille. The French and English form bouillabaisse comes from the Provençal Occitan word bolhabaissa, a compound that consists of the two verbs bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to reduce heat, i.e., simmer).
Bouillabaisse originally was a stew made by Marseille fishermen using the bony rockfish which they were unable to sell to restaurants or markets. There are at least three kinds of fish in a traditional bouillabaisse: typically red rascasse (Scorpaena scrofa); sea robin (fr: grondin); and European conger (fr: congre). It can also include gilt-head bream (fr: dorade); turbot; monkfish (fr: lotte or baudroie); mullet; or silver hake (fr: merlan). It usually also includes shellfish and other seafood such as sea urchins (fr: oursins), mussels (fr: moules); velvet crabs (fr: étrilles); spider crab (fr: araignées de mer) or octopus. More expensive versions may add langoustine (European lobster), though this was not part of the traditional dish made by Marseille fishermen. Vegetables such as leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes are simmered together with the broth and served with the fish. The broth is traditionally served with a rouille, a mayonnaise made of olive oil, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper on grilled slices of bread.
What makes a bouillabaisse different from other fish soups is the selection of Provençal herbs and spices in the broth; the use of bony local Mediterranean fish; the way the fish are added one at a time, in a certain order, and brought to a boil; and the method of serving. In Marseille, the broth is served first in a bowl containing the bread and rouille, with the seafood and vegetables served separately in another bowl or on a platter.
Recipes for bouillabaisse vary from family to family in Marseille, and local restaurants dispute which versions are the most authentic. In some restaurants which cater to foreign tourists, the dish called bouillabaisse has little in common with the original dish except the name.
In Marseille, bouillabaisse is rarely made for fewer than ten people; the more people who share the meal, and the more different fish that are included, the better the bouillabaisse.
An authentic Marseille bouillabaisse must include rascasse (Scorpaena scrofa), a bony rockfish which lives in the calanque and reefs close to shore. It usually also has congre (eng: European conger) and grondin (eng: sea robin). According to the Michelin Guide Vert, the four essential elements of a true bouillabaisse are the presence of rascasse, the freshness of the fish; olive oil, and an excellent saffron.
The American chef and food writer Julia Child, who lived in Marseille for a year, wrote: "to me the telling flavor of bouillabaisse comes from two things: the Provençal soup base — garlic, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, fennel, saffron, thyme, bay, and usually a bit of dried orange peel — and, of course, the fish — lean (non-oily), firm-fleshed, soft-fleshed, gelatinous, and shellfish."
This is the recipe from one of the most traditional Marseille restaurants, Grand Bar des Goudes on Rue Désirée-Pelleprat:
- 4 kilograms of fish and shellfish:
- 1 kilogram of potatoes
- 7 cloves of garlic
- 3 onions
- 5 ripe tomatoes
- 1 cup of olive oil
- 1 bouquet garni
- 1 branch of fennel
- 8 pistils of saffron
- 10 slices of pain de campagne (country bread)
- salt and Cayenne pepper
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup of olive oil
- 10 pistils of saffron
- salt and Cayenne pepper
- Clean and scale the fish and wash them, if possible in sea water. Cut them into large slices, leaving the bones. Wash the octopus and cut into pieces.
- Put the olive oil in a large casserole. Add the onions, cleaned and sliced; 6 cloves of garlic, crushed; the pieces of octopus, and the tomatoes peeled and quartered, without seeds. Brown at low heat, turning gently for five minutes, for the oil to take in the flavors.
- Add the sliced fish, beginning with the thickest to the smallest. Cover with boiling water, and add the salt and the pepper, the fennel, the bouquet garni and the saffron. Boil at a low heat, stirring from time to time so the fish doesn't stick to the casserole. Correct the seasoning. The bouillabaisse is cooked when the juice of the cooking is well blended with the oil and the water. (about twenty minutes).
- Prepare the rouille: Remove the stem of the garlic, crush the cloves into a fine paste with a pestle in a mortar. Add the egg yolk and the saffron, then blend in the olive oil little by little to make a mayonnaise, stirring it with the pestle.
- Cook the potatoes, peeled and boiled and cut into large slices, in salted water for 15 to 20 minutes. Open the sea urchins with a pair of scissors and remove the Corail with a small spoon.
- Arrange the fish on a platter. Add the corail of the sea urchins into the broth and stir.
Serve the bouillon very hot with the rouille in bowls over thick slices of bread rubbed with garlic. Then serve the fish and the potatoes on a separate platter.
Another version of the classic Marseille bouillabaisse, presented in the Petit LaRousse de la Cuisine, uses congre, dorade, grondin, lotte, merlan, rascasse, saint-pierre, and velvet crabs (étrilles), and includes leeks. In this version, the heads and trimmings of the fish are put together with onions, celery and garlic browned in olive oil, and covered with boiling water for twenty minutes. Then the vegetables and bouquet garni are added, and then the pieces of fish in a specific order; first the rascasse, then the grondin, the lotte, congre, dorade, etrilles, and saffran. The dish is cooked for eight minutes over high heat. Then the most delicate fish, the saint pierre and merlan, are added, and the dish is cooked another 5–8 minutes. The broth is then served over bread with the rouille on top, and the fish and crabs are served on a large platter.
Other variations add different seasonings, such as orange peel, and sometimes a cup of white wine or cognac is added.
Ingredients of an authentic Marseille bouillabaisse
These ingredients are often found in the traditional bouillabaisse of Provence.
A rascasse rouge or red rascasse (Scorpaena scrofa), a variety of small, spiny Mediterranean rockfish often used in bouillabaisse. Sometimes a white rascasse is used.
A grondin, or Sea robin. It is sometimes used as a substitute for rascasse.
A grondin rouge, or red gurnard.
A Saint-Pierre, or John Dory.
The Vive, or Greater Weever
The head of a Conger eel is sometimes added to a bouillabaisse.
Etrille, or velvet crab.
A small amount of saffron is used to season both the broth and the rouille.
A very small amount of cayenne pepper is added to both the broth and the rouille.
The Bouillabaisse of Marcel Pagnol
The French screenwriter and playwright Marcel Pagnol, a member of the Academie Francaise and a native of Marseille, showed his own idea of a proper bouillabaisse in two of his films. In Cigalon (fr) (1935), the chef Cigalon serves a bouillabaisse provencale aux poisson du roche, (Bouillabaisse of Provence with rockfish) made with a kilogram of local fish; Scorpaena scrofa (rascasse); Capelin; Angler fish (baudroie); John Dory (Saint-Pierre); and Slipper lobster (Cigale de mer). "When I put these fish into the pan," Cigalon says, "they were still wiggling their tails." Cigalons specifies that the slices of bread served with the broth should be thick and not toasted, and that the rouille "should not have too much pepper."
In the 1936 film César (film), Pagnol's hero Marius reveals the secret of the bouillabaisse of a small bistro near the port in Marseille. "Everbody knows it," Marius says: "they perfume the broth with a cream of sea urchins."
History and legend
According to tradition, the origins of the dish date back to the time of the Phoceans, an Ancient Greek people who founded Marseille in 600 BC. Then, the population ate a simple fish stew known in Greek as 'kakavia.' Something similar to Bouillabaisse also appears in Roman mythology: it is the soup that Venus fed to Vulcan.
The dish known today as bouillabaisse was created by Marseille fishermen who wanted to make a meal when they returned to port. Rather than using the more expensive fish, they cooked the common rockfish and shellfish that they pulled up with their nets and lines, usually fish that were too bony to serve in restaurants, cooking them in a cauldron of sea water on a wood fire and seasoning them with garlic and fennel. Tomatoes were added to the recipe in the 17th century, after their introduction from America.
In the 19th century, as Marseille became more prosperous, restaurants and hotels began to serve bouillabaisse to upper-class patrons. The recipe of bouillabaisse became more refined, with the substitution of fish stock for boiling water, and the addition of saffron. Bouillabaisse spread from Marseille to Paris, and then gradually around the world, adapted to local ingredients and tastes.
The name bouillabaisse comes from the method of the preparation — the ingredients are not added all at once. The broth is first boiled (bolh) then the different kinds of fish are added one by one, and each time the broth comes to a boil, the heat is lowered (abaissa).
Generally similar dishes are found in Portugal (caldeirada), Spain (sopa de pescado y marisco, suquet de peix (es)), Italy (zuppa di pesce), Greece and all the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea; where these kind of dishes have been made since the Neolithic Era. What makes a bouilabaisse different from these other dishes are the local Provençal herbs and spices, the particular selection of bony Mediterranean coastal fish and the way the broth is served separately from the fish and vegetables.
- "La bouillabaisse classique doit comporter les 'trois poissons': rascasse, grondin, congre." Michelin Guide Vert -Côte dAzur, 1990, page 31
- Michelin Guide Vert -Côte dAzur, 1990, page 31
- Julia Child, My Life in France, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2006. Pg. 174
- Jean-Louis André, Cuisines des pays de France, Éditions du Chêne, 2001
- Octopus is used in bouillabaisse only in the Goudes quarter of Marseille, according to Jean Louis André, Cuisines des Pays de France
- Petit LaRousse de la Cuisine, LaRousse (1998)
- See the Michelin Guide Vert, Côte d'Azur, pg.31 (in French), for this version.
- Marcel Pagnol, Cigalon, (1935). Collected Works of Marcel Pagnol, France Loisirs, 1989
- Marcel Pagnol, César. Collected Works of Marcel Pagnol, France Loisirs, 1989
- A. J. Liebling. "Onward and Upward with the Arts: The Soul of Bouillabaisse Town". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2013-05-05.
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